Tuesday, October 14, 2014

3 days left on Quests of Doom Kickstarter

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/froggodgames/quests-of-doom-pathfinder-and-swords-and-wizardry
I'd like everyone to take note that I refrained from posting a "What is the OSR" entry during the (most) recent flap about what the OSR is, was, should be, and isn't. I have something more interesting, which is the old-school-rules version of Quests of Doom, a book of 18 adventures. The authors are definitely old-schoolers, although there's a slant into authors of the late 1e and early 2e era more than the classic 1e or earlier. However, the rule set is Swords & Wizardry (0E) (click format to pdf for free copy of rules), and the mission statement is to produce adventures that fit the 0E/1E mold (avoiding railroading, too-strong NPCs, etc.), and there are strong authors with non-2e chops (me, Bill Webb, Casey Christofferson, and Michael Curtis, to name 4)

The list of authors is: Matt Finch (Swords & Wizardry, Tome of Adventure Design), Ed Greenwood (The Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, The City of Splendors), J. Collura (Caverns of Thracia Reloaded, Chaos Rising), Michael Curtis (The Dungeon Alphabet, Realms of Crawling Chaos), and Casey Christofferson (The Tome of Horrors, City of Brass). Throw in a few D&D long-timers like Steve Winter (Tyranny of Dragons, Murder in Baldur’s Gate), James M. Ward (Gamma World, Pool of Radiance, Castle Keeper’s Guide), Skip Williams (Axe of the Dwarvish Lords, The Rod of Seven Parts), and Bill Webb (Rappan Athuk, The Lost City of Barakus).

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Can a Dungeon Master Cheat?

I saw this question somewhere on the web a couple of days ago, and I can't find it anymore. Incidentally, that's my biggest problem with social media as opposed to blogs and message boards, but that's a topic for another day.

Can a DM cheat? In other words, does the DM so completely rule the game that there is no recourse under the rules themselves for a player?

It's an interesting question when you get into it, partly because when you try to break down what "cheating" means, there are many different possibilities, and it's all mixed in with the fact that the DM certainly is in a position to make rulings. But to break rules, is that simply a "house rule" or a "house ruling" when the rule snaps in two?

I would tend to say that while a DM can't cheat, there are certain things that are "cheap shots." Depending on how you run the game, some things might be cheat shots at one DM's table, but not so much at someone else's table where the base expectations of the game are different.

The "killer DM" isn't cheating, but he's taking cheap shots that will ultimately destroy his game. Still, I am so much in favor of the word "Referee" as opposed to "Dungeon Master" that just the mental vocabulary tells me that somewhere ... I think a DM could be accused of cheating. Hmm.

Just a thought.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Map Challenge - Domes of the Serpentfolk

Okay, so here's a map in response to Erik Tenkar's challenge. Everyone is supposed to post some maps. So ... this is my original draft for the map of the Domes of the Serpentfolk, appearing in Cyclopean Deeps vol. 1, Chapter 5. The version that actually shows up in the book is Robert Altbauer's rendition of this draft.

The idea of the thin stone wall between the domes, filled with secret corridors of different serpent-folk societies developed while I was drafting the map. It originally just has three domes in a big cavern, and that was kind of boring, so I worked with it until I stumbled on the idea of having not only 2 caverns (that was idea #1), but to have the wall be thick and filled with rooms (that was idea #2). I'm pretty happy with the result.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Do-or-die for 5e D&D: third party publishers

Here's the summary of a long post.

If D&D doesn't allow third party publishing, it forces the 3rd party publishers to compete with D&D, using the Pathfinder system. Or whatever, but mainly Pathfinder. They have the choice of recruiting a mass of competitive allies, or throwing all that capital and creativity onto Paizo's side of the scale. It's an existential decision. Not this year certainly, but as early as next year I think the absence or presence of third party publishers will begin determining the ultimate survival of D&D in the face of Pathfinder.

Whether it's public relations to call it a "license," or whether something titled "license" was put in there with the operative legal documents, what WotC has done with Kobold Press and presumably again with Sasquatch, isn't what I'd call a license in terms of putting the benefits of third-party creativity into the system.

I don't fault them for that; they had to have an adventure to go out with the core books, and they no doubt had (and probably still have) internal wars over exactly the same question here on this thread -- is a real license a good idea for WotC or is it a bad one, and even if it's a good one then some poor lawyer has to write the thing with multiple people telling him/her how to word it. (I'm a lawyer, my heart bleeds for that person)

But the arrangement with Kobold is more like hiring a production company at best.
(1) Surely no one thinks Kobold wasn't given parameters for content (betcha it had to have at least one dragon, no dead kids, etc.). Granted, some content ratings, though, can definitely still be "like a license," (see Paizo's nipple restriction) but the amount of restriction and guidance is obviously quite major in this case.
(2) Surely no one thinks Wolfgang Bauer was required to invest his own money at a measurable scale relative to the project for an investor's share? That's in the nature of a license.
(3) Surely no one thinks that there wasn't a set range for the page count.

See, here's the thing. Licenses can take many forms, and have many layers of complexity, including all manner of restrictions, but AT HEART a license is something that allows a third party to be an independent business using the licensed material. Not necessarily a successful one, not necessarily one that supports a family, but one where the significant decisions, most of the risk, and most of the gain, are undertaken by the licensee. Here, WotC is undertaking all the risk, and capturing most of the upside. That's not a license agreement, it's hiring a group of excellent authors who have a company. Which, again, was a good call. I don't fault that decision for even a moment in terms of where WotC stood on its production schedule, its work load and personnel coverage, the evolving state of the rules, and the legal/marketing interface on the question of how open to be with the rules. I would have done the same thing at that point in time. Remember, it takes a LONG time to produce a book like Tyranny of Dragons, and you have to manage lots of moving pieces. WotC effectively hired Kobold to handle as many of those moving pieces as possible within the context of a flagship product. Wolfgang Bauer was a brilliant choice for it. But that's (a) not really a license in any meaningful sense of the word, and (b) not something that grants the benefits of a robust licensing system -- or the downside either, and some downside does exist.

The question of true licensing is this: WotC is trying to catch up with a well-funded, popular competitor that has a well-established brand name, in almost exactly the same competitive space. WotC has a more widely recognized brand name, but it's an older brand name with fewer loyal, die-hard customers than Paizo has. The different aspects of those brand names are important to the way the competition is going to roll out. WotC is starting from behind, but has to work slightly less hard per new customer, and slightly less hard to shift a customer from the Paizo circle in the Venn diagram to the WotC circle. On the other hand, Paizo has WotC under siege. All Paizo has to do is hold onto enough customers that WotC doesn't meet the expectations of the Magic the Gathering return on investment for long enough that WotC decides not to keep funding new books for D&D. Paizo can last much longer because of that existing base of loyal customers. WotC can generate phenomenal return on investment with the core books, but has to sustain a cash flow stream. Paizo already has, and will undoubtedly retain, enough cash flow to continue publishing Pathfinder under their existing model. D&D will, without question, grab enough fans to stay in business if those fans keep playing and buy more books. But they have to hold that ground.

That's a summary of the competitive space, and I think it's accurate. D&D probably got the one, big, expenditure authorization. Core books. After that, have production houses produce smaller books that will also sell to players (campaigns, adventurer sourcebooks. Look at the production schedule and whether full-time WotC employees are doing the writing: I rest my case).

Where do third party publishers fit in here? It all has to do with the popularity of one system or the other. D&D is fighting to survive in that competitive space long enough to gain customer loyalty for those player-targeted books (and the ability to license pinball machines, shirts, computer games, movies, happy-meal toys, etc). They have to stay in the game.

You can't. Cannot. Stay in the game against Paizo with limited funding and a single WotC-supervised line of products. Not even if you are casting a wide net on your product definition such as "Forgotten Realms," or "Greyhawk," or "Spelljammer." That's been tried. The older ones of us remember how successful D&D can be if it runs many campaigns, player-targeted books, and attempt to control outside publishing. That was late-TSR business planning, and it ran TSR out of business. It didn't kill the brand name, but that's because there was no established competitor of any size.

In this case, there's Paizo. Phenomenal customer service, fanatic customer loyalty, stable game system rules (I think WotC's D&D rules are pretty stable and spiffy, too, but I'm profiling Paizo, not comparing), well funded, and with owners that won't cancel the game over a couple of bad fiscal quarters in a row.

One of the ways Paizo got so powerful as a competitor? Third parties publishing "alternate visions" of Pathfinder. Publishing little things to spice up a non-standard game. Publishing robot-power-pirate-dinosaur adventures for the 25 gaming groups that needed exactly that module on exactly that release date. All those people who might have drifted to D&D or Savage Worlds, or Swords & Wizardry, or gone back to First Edition D&D ... they stayed with Pathfinder because of the 3d party publishers. And then maybe a week, maybe a month, maybe six months later, they bought another Pathfinder book from Paizo. Or they bought another robot-power-pirate-dinosaur adventure in the Paizo store, giving Paizo a percentage.

WotC benefits LESS from third party publishers than Paizo, because they don't (and won't) have a store like Paizo does, where they get cash flow direct from the third party publishers. Let me tell you, Paizo got a measurable chunk of change by selling Frog God Games' Rappan Athuk. WotC wouldn't get that cash flow stream. But having the third party publishers prevents this scenario: "Hey, let's play Rappan Athuk. Oh, it's for Pathfinder not D&D. Oh well, drag out the Pathfinder books again, we'll play D&D again later, maybe." Because remember, D&D needs that cash flow stream now, not later. They need: "Hey, let's play Rappan Athuk. There's a 5th edition version [not yet, fans, this is an example]. But I need a DM screen. No problem, I'll get one this afternoon over at the game store [where, additionally to the DM screen, there are other WotC products next to it on the shelf]."

There's no question that in the above example, some WotC product (say, Tyranny of Dragons) got left on the shelf, and all WotC sold was a DM screen (and maybe a related impulse buy). But the relevant comparison ISN'T less vs more, which many commenters seem to think. The relevant comparison is an existential one: it's selling NOTHING vs selling something. Selling "something" to those who would otherwise play the competing game because of third party publishers keeps the lights on at D&D headquarters.

D&D alone can muster up a nice, robust product line that will sell to people who like the common denominator. Mike Mearles has done a good job of hitting a broad common denominator. He's in there swinging. He built an awesome battleship out of what looked like a sunken wreck.

The competing product line, though, is a freaking juggernaut. Paizo is at the center like an aircraft carrier, delivering wave after wave of common denominator product. What's different is the vast armada of third party publishers meeting every need of the Pathfinder player, from alternate minis, to little status tokens, to specialized adventures, to variant character classes, to whatever imaginable whim that player might have. If they play Pathfinder. Instead of D&D.

The summary is this:

Without those 3rd party publishers, WotC has no way to capture the marginal customer. The people who simply can't live with the concept of a world without [your favorite Pathfinder 3pp product]." Single product line relying on multiple official campaigns and policing 3pp production didn't fly in 1998. And now, in 2014, Paizo is out there. Paizo is lean, mean, and popular. If D&D wants to beat the empire, it needs a plucky rebel alliance. They need to start assembling that rebel alliance, fast. And that doesn't mean hiring companies to produce company-approved material using WotC capital and Hasbro's corporate bonds. That's the TSR model circa 1998. I'm assuming that this is just because the rest of the WotC business model hasn't rolled out yet. But the clock is ticking. OGL-based material won't continue to flow from 3rd party publishers without a license to use the copyrighted terms in the rules (not necessarily the trademark, and not an SRD). Without at least that level of open license, D&D won't have the staying power, and Paizo just has to wait. The third party publishers will do all the competing that Paizo needs done.

If D&D doesn't allow third party publishing, it forces the 3rd party publishers to compete with D&D, using the Pathfinder system. Or whatever, but mainly Pathfinder. They have the choice of recruiting a mass of competitive allies, or throwing all that capital and creativity onto Paizo's side of the scale. It's an existential decision. Not this year certainly, but as early as next year I think the absence or presence of third party publishers will begin determining the ultimate survival of D&D in the face of Pathfinder.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 3


So, in my last installment of this series, I pointed out that there have been two different approaches taken for D&D in terms of creating a basic set. The first of these, the Holmes basic set, was essentially a full set of rules that only went up three levels. The second, the Moldvay Basic set, was the first half of a complete game, a game that ran parallel with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons all the way up to the top possible levels. The rules of this parallel game were less complex than the rules of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (for those who are unfamiliar with the game's first edition, it was a rather difficult game if you tried to use all the rules).

Now that Wizards of the Coast has released a new basic set for 5th Edition D&D, it's worth taking a look at the philosophy and approach of the new approach. Is WotC taking the "just for a couple of levels" approach, or the "less-complex but all-the-way-to-the-end" approach?

The answer, interestingly enough, appears to be that they are simultaneously taking both approaches. What's different here with the two past offerings isn't the contents, it's the medium. The starter kit, which comes in a box and will get sold in stores, apparently takes the Holmes approach. It's only good for a short time; you learn the essential rules and you have some pregenerated characters. You don't have the ability to level them up beyond a certain point, and you don't even have the rules to build different ones. Some people (all of them experienced gamers on the internet) labeled this as crippleware, even though it's a basic set. If the starter set is viewed in isolation, I suppose it's not as robust as the Holmes set. However, let me tell you something, the Holmes set wasn't exactly easy to learn. It wasn't until the Moldvay set that any kind of linearity of concepts really leached into the D&D rules, Basic or Advanced. The Holmes set, like OD&D, was magical. AD&D was rich and epic. Moldvay, however, came up with the first easy-to-learn version. Let's not hear the argument about "kids these days:" I got the XP rules from Holmes dead wrong, and I'd read the Hobbit at age 5, and eventually got a perfect score on the SAT verbal, and went to Harvard. The Holmes rules weren't easy to nail.

WotC has taken the discrete task of "get playing and learn through playing" to a new extreme. Here are your pre-generated characters. How to use them. Go.

At the same time, though, there's the rest of the plan, the other shoe, the parallel strategy, whatever you want to call it. With the free pdf of the Basic Rules, WotC picks up the BEMCI (Mentzer Basic) approach to Basic-ness to accompany the "even simpler than Moldvay" one.

That's enough for this installment -- in the next one I will pick up why the difference between past and present is centered on the medium rather than the content of the WotC 5th Edition Basic.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 2


So, after yesterday's post about the first Basic Set, the Holmes Blue Book, let's recap by saying that the Holmes set lacked vital rules for playing beyond a certain point. It wasn't a working but simplified version of AD&D (e.g., missing rangers, some spells from each level, some monsters, some treasure, etc). Rather, it stopped working entirely at a certain point.

The next Basic Set to come out was the 1981 Red Box, "Moldvay Basic," or "B/X." The reason for the "X" in "B/X" was to stand for the Expert Box that a gaming group could move on to once they had exhausted the resources of the Basic Set.
Now, if you've been keeping track of my focus so far, you've probably already guessed the point I'm about to make. The Holmes Basic Set graduated the players up to Advanced D&D. The Moldvay Basic Set (which went to level 3 just like the Holmes set) didn't. It graduated you to something that was effectively a parallel to Advanced D&D, because the Expert set (which I just looked up for information) went to level 14. At this point in time there were two versions of low-to-high-level D&D.

I don't have much to add about 1983 "Mentzer" Basic, also called BEMCI because it contained Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal rules. I never happened to play this edition (I was a proud-to-play-Advanced-snob even by the time of the Moldvay set), but the Mentzer edition isn't relevant to this particular history because it's essentially a continuation and a culmination of the trend started with the B/X sets -- the creation of a parallel D&D game.

Although there have been other D&D Basic sets, the continuum from Holmes to Mentzer set the stage for two different approaches to Basic Sets, which now that I have established, I'll get into in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned!


Monday, June 30, 2014

The Concept of a Basic Game Part 1

Dungeons & Dragons has used the concept of a "Basic" version since fairly early in the game's history. With the game first being published in 1974, the Holmes Basic set came out in 1978, four years later. Together with an expanded Monster Manual, the Basic Set ("Holmes Basic," or the "Blue Book") was an integral part of the marketing plan for the first radical step in rules revisions that TSR was to make: the new "Advanced" D&D. The Holmes Basic set gave players (and DMs) a full and robust set of rules for playing their characters up to third level but no further.Oddly, it contained several monsters far too difficult for characters of low level. For me, that was like heroin. I had to get the expanded, Advanced game so I could fight purple worms and dragons. From the standpoint of marketing, it was brilliant.

The fact that it only went to third level was absolutely fine to us at the time. It certainly meant that we wanted AD&D, but we saw AD&D almost as an expansion rather than something that would cure the "crippleware" of a Basic set that only went to third level. In other words, I don't think it was crippleware; it wouldn't be now, and it most certainly wasn't at that time in history before the internet made us expect everything for free.

Interestingly, Holmes Basic had LOTS of rules that were completely different from AD&D. Those rules have actually been duplicated and used to created an entire game based on Holmes that reached beyond third level. However, these differences were pretty much disregarded at the time, at least by everyone I knew, as the parts that made the game "Basic." For all I know, that might have been what TSR intended. It's interesting, though, because I think the internet would die of nerdrage if WotC's free (FREE!) Basic Game turned out to have such differences as the Holmes Set did to AD&D.

I don't mean to be delivering one of those "uphill in the snow and we LIKED it" tirades -- I'm trying to point out a couple of areas where the lack of instantaneous communication probably affected the relationship between a Basic Game and an Advanced Game in a big way.

Wizards of the Coast is releasing a Basic Game into the piranha tank of the internet age, and I'm going to take a look at some of the parameters of the game, talking about the entire theory of a Basic Game (and a couple of historical comments about TSR, although I'm very much only a dilettante of D&D's history). For the time being, here is the page with WotC's parameters for the 5th edition Basic Game.